Two workers in critical condition after scaffolding cable snaps at Wheeling water tower

Two workers who were sandblasting and painting the inside of a Wheeling water tower Friday are in critical condition after a cable holding up their scaffolding snapped and caused them to fall, authorities said.

One of the workers fell 60 to 80 feet, while the other had facial injuries but was mobile, after the scaffolding swung and smashed into the side of the tank, according to Wheeling Fire Chief Mike McGreal.

As many as 40 technical rescue firefighters from a dozen towns as far away as Hoffman Estates arrived at the Wheeling village-owned water tank at 702 Wolf Court just after 9 a.m. It turns out technical crews were nearby in Arlington Heights having their first training session since the COVID-19 virus lockdown, and they came to the scene with all their gear, speeding rescue work, McGreal said.

Rescue workers used ropes and harnesses to help both victims in what was described as a "very involved and technical rescue" on the Wheeling Fire Department incident report. It took rescuers about 12 minutes to ascend to the top of the tank, reach the injured workers and give them emergency medical treatment, according to the report.

Both injured men were then put in harnesses, and ropes were used to lift and lower them some 100 feet to safety, officials said.

"It's a very tricky operation because the tank is empty of water," McGreal said. "There are a series of manhole-size openings, so they actually had to lift the patients up to lower the patients (to the ground), so it was a pretty tricky technical rescue. Overall they did a great job."

Both victims were taken to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville.

The preliminary investigation points toward equipment failure, the report stated.

A spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed Friday afternoon that the federal agency has opened an investigation. By law, OSHA has six months to complete its investigation.

The contractor, D & M Painting Corp., based in Washington, Pennsylvania, did not respond to a request for comment. The company was hired by Wheeling officials in April to re-coat the elevated tank, which holds potable drinking water for residents and businesses.

Village tanks are drained and inspected every five years to analyze coatings for any corrosion, while a full-scale stripping of coatings followed by re-coatings takes place every 17 to 24 years, Village Manager Jon Sfondilis told village trustees April 20. It was during that meeting that board members inked a $482,840 contract with D & M Painting for the rehab work, along with a $41,100 contract with Dixon Engineering to perform the initial analysis.

  Technical rescue crews from a dozen fire departments responded to trapped workers inside a Wheeling water tower Friday morning. Many of the firefighters happened to be training in nearby Arlington Heights at the time of the dispatch call. Paul Valade/
  Technical rescue personnel removed two workers from inside a Wheeling water tower Friday morning. The workers are in critical condition after a cable holding their scaffolding snapped, causing one of them to fall as much as 80 feet. Paul Valade/
  As many as 40 firefighters from a dozen towns responded to an emergency rescue call Friday morning when two workers fell and became trapped inside a Wheeling water tower. The workers are in critical condition. Paul Valade/
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